Archive for January, 2012

The Urban Goat




Goats are a practical dairy animal to have in a small setting, and they are delightful company, but there are a few things to keep in mind before you run out and get some. If you have a job as well as an urban-farming impulse, pay close attention to the timesaving techniques listed here.
1. Goats require excellent fencing, because they prefer brush, shrubs, and trees to grass and will destroy your plantings if they get a chance. The fencing also has to be sturdy enough to protect them from other people’s dogs, as well as coyotes and other wildlings.
2. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t “eat anything,” and in fact are picky eaters who can be expensive to feed.
3. They are very productive. This doesn’t sound like a problem until your refrigerator is crammed with mason jars of milk and you have no time to do anything useful with it.
4. To have milk, they have to have babies, and you have to have a plan for what to do with the babies.
With that in mind, here’s how I manage my “yard goats.”
They have a long thin pen, about 8 feet by 50 feet, very well fenced. There is an inside fence and gate allowing the paddock to be subdivided 1/3 to 2/3rds.
Housing is a large old wooden doghouse. They go inside in wet weather, but most of the time they lounge and sleep on the roof.
The bulk of their diet is good alfalfa. During the green season I cut armloads of Siberian elm branches and various weeds for them. I take care to know all the toxic weeds in my area so that I can avoid them, and there are some perfectly wholesome plants that they won’t touch. In late pregnancy and when in milk, they get a daily grain ration. I would like to produce milk completely on green feed, but they get too thin, so I haven’t pushed it. All grain ration needs to be formulated specifically for goats, since they have exacting mineral requirements.
They get routine clostridium and tetanus vaccinations yearly, twice for kids.

I don’t invest in milking stands or other expensive equipment. I just chain the doe to her feeding post, kneel down on a pat of straw, and milk directly into a stainless steel milk strainer with filter in place; this is set in the mouth of a sanitized mason jar, and I have a second jar ready. The jar, filter in place, is set in a clean food-grade plastic bucket to prevent kicking and to avoid any contact with the ground. Each jar is capped as soon as it’s full, and I put them in the refrigerator as soon as I’m done. This only works with quart jars, because they are small enough to cool rapidly in the refrigerator. If you use bigger containers, you would need to chill the containers quickly in an ice bath. This adds up to more hassle and expense. I prefer to keep it simple. I use standard udder wipes to clean the udder before milking, but I don’t dip the teats afterwards because the babies are going to be nursing.

Now here’s the part that is a little unusual compared to standard practices. I only milk once a day. This is because my career doesn’t allow me the luxury of milking twice daily and bottle-raising the kids. So I let the kids grow as nature intended. After the does freshen (give birth,) I leave the kids with mama full-time and milk out any excess milk once a day. For the first two weeks, I feed the milk to the chickens because it contains colostrum. There isn’t a lot of milk these first two weeks anyway. After that the milk supply will gradually increase, reaching full production after two months. I continue to milk once a day, and about a month after the birth, when the kids are growing fast and drinking nearly all the milk, I start to shut the kids in the small end of the pen for about 12 hours a day. I do this in the morning before going to work, and in the evening I milk and then let mom and kids back together overnight. Both doe and kids have access to all the alfalfa they can eat, and the doe gets a grain ration while being milked.

By the time the kids are two months old, I can take a day off milking here and there if I want to, just by not separating them in the morning. If I have to go out of town, doe and kids stay together and, as long as a reliable person feeds them, they do fine until I get back. Managed in this way, my Saanan doe Magnolia gives two quarts of milk a day plus what her offspring drink, and the kids are raised with no trouble to me, which seems like a good deal. After about 8 months the doe will start kicking the kids away when they try to nurse, but at this point I’m ready to quit for the year anyway, so I let her dry up. Along the way she’s been bred, and we can all wait quietly through the winter for the next batch of kids. It wouldn’t work commercially, when a steady supply is crucial, but it suits me fine to be free of milking chores during the short days of winter.

If you are thinking of getting goats, keep those kids in mind, because you have to do something with them. You may be able to place the females as “yard goats” for others, but about half your kids will be male and the only real market for them is for meat. If you don’t eat them yourself, someone else is likely to. Goat is one of the most widely eaten meats on the planet, and the meat of young goats is delicious, so do consider having your excess kids butchered for your own use. It’s a good healthy meat source

To get milk you need babies, and to get babies you need access to a buck. In my opinion, it is unwise even to think of keeping a buck in an urban or suburban setting. They smell terrible in breeding season, and your family and neighbors will not appreciate it. This is the sort of thing that gives urban homesteading a bad name. Find a breeder with a buck, or pair up with a rural pal who is willing to keep a buck.

Set a firm limit on how many goats you are going to keep, and stick to it. For me, that limit is two adult does, with kids in season, but no additional goats kept over the winter. And get the wonderful cookbook Goat, to help you stick to your limit.

Southwest Cassoulet


There is an odd mystique about cassoulet. There are online butchers who will sell you the ingredients to make authentic cassoulet for eight people for 85 dollars. To me, this is bemusing. It’s a peasant dish, and like most such, its original intent was to nourish people well with minimal labor and cost. The magic combination is a lot of legumes with a small amount of very flavorful meat, plus seasonings. Nearly every society has some equivalent, from split pea soup to the red beans and rice that was eaten by the quart in Louisiana when I was growing up. So at first I thought of calling this post “Bean Pot,” but then I decided that it was time to demystify cassoulet and make it clear that this is a great dish for times when weather is cold, dollars may be short, and a meal that feeds abundantly and warms from the inside is called for. Let’s make this dish our own and adapt it to our needs.
For a great big dishful, you will need a pound of dried beans, two large onions or three small ones, 4-5 cloves of garlic, some olive oil, 2 cups of good rich stock or broth, a large carrot, a small bunch of thyme, a cup or two of homemade bread crumbs or small chunks of bread if you want to gratinee the top, and about a pound and a half of very flavorful meat. A combination of types is preferable. Some possibilities are duck confit, good sausage, ham, fatty cuts of pork already cooked for some other purpose, smoked hocks (no more than one,) or whatever your taste dictates. If you have any marrow from a ham bone, it’s a great addition. If I have a couple of pork ribs left over from experiments with my smoker, I’m apt to include them. I would not use anything with strong distinctive seasoning that will stand apart and not amalgamate itself; chorizo is a good example, as much as I love it. Don’t use anything very lean; there is little meat in comparison to the amount of beans, and it needs to lend some unction to the beans. Small raw sausages can be cooked whole in the beans, but anything large and raw should be cut in chunks or precooked, such as panfrying a thick raw sausage until nearly done before including it. If you do this, remember to save the fat to add to the beans. If you insist on using a ham hock, it will add a wonderful flavor and texture but does need to be slowly simmered for a couple of hours in the stock before use, which is a drag. Ham shanks are easier in that they are more tender and can be put directly in the dish.
First, catch your beans. I used a local New Mexico product, bollita beans, but I would happily use pinto beans, cannelini beans, or any other bean that cooks up soft and plump without falling apart. I started with a pound of beans and cooked them in my solar cooker the day before I wanted to make the dish. You can cook them any way you like. There’s a lot of mystique about cooking beans, too. Here at 5000 feet above sea level with very hard water, I do presoak and then cook in filtered water, and I don’t salt them until they are almost done, and then I salt generously. In Louisiana, with very soft water and an altitude just a smidgeon above sea level, beans cooked to perfection in a few hours with no special considerations. Know your conditions, and cook accordingly. If you aren’t cooking them a day ahead, they need to be ready at least 90 minutes before you want to eat. Make sure they are salted to your taste!

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. While the beans soften to perfection, or reheat if cooked the day before, chop the onions and garlic finely. I do all the cooking in the big La Chamba clay casserole in which I will finish the dish, largely because it’s a thing of beauty and I love to handle it. You can use a skillet if your casserole won’t take direct heat. Heat the olive oil over medium heat, saute the onions until they are becoming transparent, add the garlic, and saute until thoroughly cooked and maybe coloring a little (I like the richness of flavor this adds, but don’t burn them.) Drain the beans, saving the broth for something else, and mix with the onions and garlic. Add the chopped thyme and 1.5 to 2 teaspoons of freshly ground black pepper (very important to the final flavor.) Taste the beans and make sure they are salted to the level that you want. Now stick the meat into the beans. If you are using raw sausage or any raw pork, keep it near the top. I used some sections of smoked spareribs and stuck them well down into the pot. I always plop a leg of duck confit on the top. If you’re using duck make sure the skin is a little above the beans to that it can get nice and crisp. Pour a cup and a half of rich hot stock over all, and save the rest of the stock in case you need it later. Stick the dish into the preheated oven for an hour, then carefully haul it out and poke around a little. Since everything was hot when you started, any sausage or pieces of raw pork should be cooked at this point, but if not, keep them on top where you can fish them out for extra cooking if needed. Make sure there is some fluid near the bottom, and add more stock if the beans seem too dry. If you want a gratineed top, as I always do, cover the top with breadcrumbs or little pieces of bread, making sure not to cover the duck skin if you’re using it. Stir the bready stuff lightly into any fat that has appeared on the surface so that it gets deliciously golden and crisp rather than hard. If there is no surface fat, dot the bread generously with butter or drizzle it with olive oil. Bake another half hour. Take it out again, and check the sausage to make sure it got cooked. If the top hasn’t gotten crisp and gold, run it under the broiler until it is, but make sure not to burn it. Serve, making sure that everyone gets some of the crisp bready bits on top, and a fragment of the duck skin if they want it. The taste of the dish is simple and pure, and can waken ancestral memories of the farmhouse table. A green salad on the side is nice, but fussy vegetables are just not needed.
This makes a lot of hearty food. My clay casserole is about 11 inches long, nine inches wide, and four inches deep, and this fills it to the brim. Leftovers are likely, and welcome.

The Winter Kitchen, with notes on making duck confit



We have had a splendid holiday season here in New Mexico, from attending Los Posados, our traditional candlelit Christmas procession, in mid-December to ringing in the New Year joyously and quietly with my visiting parents. In the mornings we feasted on our own backyard eggs (due to the huge amount of greens that my hens eat, the yolks are a fiery orange-red, always the mark of a good egg) and Purple Peruvian hash browns, along with thick slabs of smoked bacon (not yet home-grown, but in the future, who knows?) We ate my own meat chickens cooked a dozen different ways; in the out-of-focus shot below, you see them grilling on my new firepit grill.

Usually I can take a little time off around the holidays, and so that’s when I do some yearly kitchen chores, like making duck confit. This is a large undertaking and isn’t for everyone. If you just want to quick-grill a leg here and there, buying your duck confit is probably perfectly reasonable. But if you want not just the meat, but the lovely flavorful fat it was cooked in, then make it yourself.
Be prepared to spend some time looking for your materials. I order them on the Internet. To confit six large duck legs, you need two pounds of extra duck fat. I pay less than $15 for the fat, but I have seen duck fat sold in 7oz quantities for almost that price. You can use lard or olive oil instead if you insist, but in my view that isn’t proper duck confit. I should add that I don’t use pink salt, curing salt containing nitrates, for confit and so mine has to be refrigerated or, for storage over a few weeks, frozen. If you want to cure with pink salt, get the excellent book Charcuterie and follow the directions. I always confit twelve duck legs with four pounds of fat so I have some to give to foodie friends, but that’s probably overkill for most people.
Having secured six large duck legs with thighs attached and two pounds of duck fat, you are ready to start. First, salt the legs very generously, using two tablespoons of salt for the whole job. Grind black pepper generously over the legs, chop a small handful of thyme leaves and strew them about, and put in a bowl or plastic bag with 10 peeled smashed cloves of garlic and 10 bay leaves interspersed with the legs. Be sure to get Turkish bay leaves; the commonly found ones from California have a mentholated quality that you will not enjoy in the finished product. Set in the refrigerator overnight.
The next day, heat your oven to 300 degrees. Lay the duck legs out on a baking sheet with the bay leaves and garlic underneath them, and make sure the pepper and thyme leaves make it onto the tray. If doubling this recipe, use two trays. Don’t crowd them, because you need room for them to release their fat. Bake slowly until the legs are golden brown, usually about an hour.

Remove from the oven and place the legs in a pot large enough to hold them with room left over. Transfer the bay, garlic, etc. to the pot as well. Add the extra duck fat, and bring to a simmer. Use a flame-tamer if your burners run hot. Let the pot simmer comfortably until the duck meat is very willing to fall off the bone. This usually takes five or six hours for me.
Let cool just until no longer warm to the touch, but the fat is still liquid. Portion out as you like; I put two whole legs in a plastic container to go in the refrigerator, and ladle in enough fat to cover them. Then I use my Foodsaver to package the rest into bags containing two legs each, with enough fat to fill just the bottom of the bag, and vacuum-seal for the freezer. You will have a quart or two of pure fat left over, and this can be frozen in quart plastic containers for the next time you confit.
Now that you have a lot of duck confit, what do you do with it? For starters, you can make a quick rich meal by putting legs, heated and drained of their fat, in a very hot oven or under the broiler, then serving them on a bed of lentils or with herbed spaetzle, drained well and fried in a little of the duck fat until it has lovely crisp brown spots. You can set a leg or two on top of any cassoulet-type bean dish, nestling them into the beans a little so that as the whole splendid amalgam cooks, the duck fat plumps and sweetens the beans and the duck skin gets very crisp.

You can use fat and chopped confit to coat roast potatoes, letting the little bits of duck get crispy as the potatoes brown.

You can use a bit of chopped confit meat and duck fat to dress winter vegetables like carrots or parsnips, with a sprinkle of parsley to lighten the effect. Frozen green peas, given a brief boil, drained, and tossed in a hot pan for several minutes with a dash of heavy cream, a tablespoon or two of chopped confit meat and fat, and some soaked, chopped slices of dried porcini mushrooms, are elevated above their usual station in life. In the winter, duck confit adds subtle richness to everything it touches. On very cold evenings, you may even enjoy plain garlic toasts popped under the broiler with some chopped confit on top. Whenever you take some out of the container, gently warm it so that some fat liquifies and covers the meat to protect it from the air. Keep it in the refrigerator; it will not store safely at room temperature. Then when the hot weather comes, you will no longer be interested in confit at all. So enjoy it in its season.